In the previous post, I tried to show that although Christ centered preachers are often criticized for disregarding authorial intent in order to “make” every text about Jesus, a christocentric emphasis is not so much the result of exegetical method as of hermeneutical convictions. If Jesus is the culmination of all that the Old Testament writers said then applying their words to Christ and His work is recognizing rather than disregarding their original intent.
Nevertheless, the Bible is not a wax nose to be twisted into any shape that one desires, even if that shape is the shape of the cross. In this post, I would like to argue for a balanced approach to preaching Christ from all of the Bible while not ignoring the authorial intent of Old Testament writers. After all, if the Old Testament writers intend to present Christ then a faithful exegesis will be Christ centered and yet never disconnected from the purpose, structure, and context of their words.
If we take a balanced approach and explain the plain meaning of the text before making application of Christ, we will avoid many of the deficiencies of the positions at the extremes of either position. For example, some critics of Christ centered preaching accuse it of being light on practical application for a life of holiness while supporters criticize exemplary preaching of the Old Testament as bare moralism. The approach I am advocating allows for exemplary preaching within the context of redemptive-historical application. Some advocates of Christ centered preaching insist that every Christian sermon must explicitly present Christ while critics assert that the purpose of every sermon is to explain the meaning of the passage and that not every passage explicitly focusses on Jesus. The approach I support allows for the preacher to present Christ while explaining the plain meaning of Old Testament passages. I believe that these applications develop naturally from the text because Jesus and His work are the culmination of all Old Testament teaching.
There is not room here for a detailed analysis of the topic but a few basic concepts help provide boundaries for balancing authorial intent and Christ centeredness. First, as Walter Kaiser Jr. argues, we must read the Bible from front to back rather than back to front. Many advocates of Christ centered preaching insist that the fullness of New Testament revelation should inform our understanding of Old Testament passages. Some Christ centered advocates such as Ed Clowney and Graeme Goldsworthy argue that the full meaning of particular Old Testament texts may transcend the language and context of the original passage. Certainly, we should not read the Old Testament as if we do not have the New but as Kaiser points out, to disconnect the meaning of a passage from the actual words, context, and structure of the human author is to undermine the Bible as a standard of truth.
If, however, this is the case then how is it that I can claim that every passage is about Jesus Christ if many Old Testament texts are not explicitly messianic? The reason is that every passage to one degree or another connects to a series of trajectories that culminate in Christ and His work (past and/or future). Every text is related to God in some way, whether it is His kingdom, His promises, His people, etc. These grand themes such as God dwelling with His people, the coming King, the blessing to the nations, God creating for Himself a holy people, run throughout the Bible from start to finish. The connection between God and the full revelation of Himself to human beings in Christ is the basis for a natural application of Old Testament passages to Christ. If we are preaching with the whole Bible in mind and yet are reading it from front to back we can clearly explain the natural meaning of the Old Testament passage based upon the context and purpose of the human author and then make legitimate application to Christ and His work. Since Jesus Christ is the perfect revelation of God, we are to understand God the Father through Him (Jn. 14:9, 2 Cor. 4:4, Heb. 1:3). We therefore are able to make the proper and intended application of the Old Testament without reading meaning back from the New Testament. The New Testament revelation is the culmination rather than the foundation of the Old.
If the preacher faithfully preaches the meaning of the Old Testament passage, there will be a natural pathway to Christ or His work. The text does not have to be explicitly messianic in order for the application of the text to be legitimately Christological. The reason is that even the non-messianic texts work together to build toward a fulfillment in Jesus and His work. Here are just a few of many examples that would encompass a wide range of Old Testament texts.
- The Kingdom / Christ is the promised king
- The Law (holiness of the people of God) / New Covenant in Christ’s blood & His perfect righteousness
- The Wisdom of God / Christ the divine Logos & wisdom of God, also Christ who applied the Law perfectly and is the wise teacher who is greater than Solomon
- Defeat of the enemies of God / the Cross & the 2nd coming
- God dwelling with His people / the incarnation & new Jerusalem
We can preach wisdom and exemplary points and still connect the texts to their culmination in Christ through either promise-fulfillment or a redemptive-historical approach. Many strong authorial intent advocates are critical of the methods of the redemptive-historical school but if you agree that the intent of the Old Testament prophets was to point to Christ, (1 Pet. 1:10-12) it is possible to incorporate much that is valuable in their methods without abandoning a commitment to a plain hermeneutic.
For example, Ed Clowney is well known for his triangle diagram that shows the relationship between a particular Old Testament event and its typological reference to Christ. Clowney argued that many Old Testament events have symbolic references to broader themes that then develop throughout the history of redemption until they finalize in Christ. His method was to preach those typological references to Christ always emphasizing an organic relationship between the promises and their fulfillment.
Many criticize the direct move from Old Testament symbol to New Testament referent because it opens the door to potentially disregard the Old Testament passage in its own context and the symbolic connections can only be certain if they are explained in the New Testament. I agree with Clowney that there are many more typological connections between the Old and New Testaments than are directly explained by the New Testament writers and I think it is legitimate to preach them. Clowney’s method is very helpful (as are his oft-ignored guidelines on identifying legitimate O.T. symbols). However, in order to maintain control of the exegesis it is more helpful for the preacher to walk the congregation through the process of moving from passage to symbol to fulfillment than moving direct from symbol to fulfillment (move along the 90-degree turn rather than along the hypotenuse). That way, the typological insights are clearly presented as arising from the relationship between the Old and New Testament passages in their natural contexts with the Old culminating in the New.
Other advocates of Christ centered preaching have suggested additional approaches that can be used while remaining true to authorial intent. For example, Bryan Chappell suggests that we pay particular attention to what he calls the fallen condition focus. This means that every Old Testament text in some sense reveals something about a particular sinful condition. By examining that condition, we can demonstrate that our contemporary congregations struggle against the same fallen condition. We can examine God’s response to that condition in the Old Testament and place that response in the broader story of God’s ultimate solution to the problem in Christ. Sidney Greidanus also argues for the need to build from the Old Testament text and suggests seven legitimate ways to move from the Old Testament message to Christ. These include:
1) Redemptive-Historical Progression
5) Longitudinal Themes
6) New Testament References
It is true that sometimes preachers use Christ centered approaches in ways that fail to honor authorial intent, but the blame lies with those preachers and not the general conviction to preach Christ from all of scripture. It is possible to take a balanced approach that allows us to draw out the Christological focus already present in the Old Testament (as well as the other lessons) without superimposing the New Testament over the Old. Rather than following any particular preaching fads, we are called to present the Word of God in a way that honestly emphasizes both the unity of the scripture as well as the unique contribution of each part.
“… our concern is not to preach Christ to the exclusion of the “whole counsel of God” but rather to view the whole counsel of God, with all its teachings, laws, prophecies, and visions, in the light of Jesus Christ. At the same time, it should be evident that we must not read the incarnate Christ back into the Old Testament text, which would be eisegesis, but that we should look for legitimate ways of preaching Christ from the Old Testament in the context of the New.”